Literary success: After 10 years in the community, Manhattan Beach’s {pages} has become a book world destination

{pages} employee Megan Johnson sells a copy of Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon” to customer Lilliana Lettieri. Photo by J.P. Cordero

{pages} employee Megan Johnson sells a copy of Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon” to customer Lilliana Lettieri. Photo by J.P. Cordero

In the spring of 2010, Pam Jenning, then an English teacher at Mira Costa High School, received a call from the mother of one of her students. The mother was friends with Linda McLoughlin Figel, one of the owners of the recently opened {pages} a bookstore in downtown Manhattan Beach. McLoughlin Figel and her partners were looking for a way to get the community involved in their new venture, and wanted to know if Jenning had any suggestions.

In her decades at Costa, Jenning specialized in American literature. She grew rhapsodic when the the curriculum turned to the Modernists of the early 20th century, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and, especially, Faulkner. (Full disclosure: Jenning was this reporter’s junior year English teacher; her classroom was festooned with Faulknerania, including a poster of a conference devoted to the geography of Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional Mississippi census unit where Faulkner’s works take place.) Jenning proposed a book club-cum-seminar. She would do presentations on major writers and topics in American literature, select a few relevant works for the group to read, and then host discussions in the store.

The owners went for it, and in the years since, Jenning has hosted units on, yes, Faulkner, but also Twain, noir, and ghost stories. Another is in the works about the frontier and American identity.

“That’s one of those great things we’ve brought to the community,” McLoughlin Figel said. “How many times in life do you have the opportunity to hear about American literature from someone like Pam Jenning?”

This week marks the 10th anniversary of {pages}. Its endurance stands as a success story for Manhattan’s business community, and a hopeful symbol of cultural life in the South Bay.

McLoughlin Figel and her friend and fellow Manhattan Beach resident Patty Gibson had been talking about opening a bookstore for 25 years before they got around to it. They had been in a book club together for two decades, when in 2008 Gibson asked once again, this time more seriously. McLoughlin Figel gave a tentative answer. She wanted to see whether the numbers supported a viable business, rather than an “expensive hobby.”

In 2008, they did not. But by late 2009, the Great Recession had pressed landlords to lower rents in commercial spaces. And then Margot Ferris, whom McLoughlin Figel met through their children’s Little League baseball teams, heard about the plan, and said she wanted in. The third partner sealed the deal, and the group signed the lease on the Manhattan Avenue storefront in late 2009. March 10, 2010 was their first day of business.

Plenty of people felt the venture was doomed. Serious book stores, the thinking went, could not survive outside of college towns and bohemian enclaves of dense major cities.

“The cynics thought we were crazy for a lot of reasons. Number one, it’s crazy to open a brick-and-mortar bookstore these days. But I think there was also a view of, ‘Really, Manhattan Beach? It’s surfers and volleyball players,’” McLoughlin Figel said. “But the community has really embraced us. And I think it is really proud of having an independent bookstore.”

At the time she was approached, Jenning, despite her love of literature, had never been part of a book club. But her years in the classroom convinced her it might be one way of developing the community connection the store was seeking.

“Whether in small groups or large ones, or some combination of the two, to share ideas, and to hear from your students — I’ve learned so much about literature and about being human from how students respond to what they’ve read,” she said. “That bond that you have, not just between teacher and student, but the students have with each other, we become a nuclear unit, a family. Maybe that’s why I thought of it: If you’re looking to bring people together in community, a book club would be the place to do that. You learn with each other, laugh, be serious, all the different emotions that come out.”

The American literature series drew a devoted following. But it’s tough to survive on the lofty and sublime in the age of Netflix. During our conversation, McLoughlin Figel, who spent years working in investment banking, alternated between gushing literary exegesis and sober financial analysis.

“The publisher is not sending these authors out of the goodness of their hearts,” she said of a past event the store organized. “If they were to send one to a school, they usually have to pay a fee. But if we can bring them in conjunction with a tour, the quid pro quo is they get to sell some books. I hate to commercialize these visits, but the reality is, you have to make it work for these authors for the publisher to keep sending them.”

McLoughlin Figel comes across as apologetically insistent about the commercial pressures of the book business. Yet in her firm belief in what a bookstore can be for a community, there is also a glimmer of the dreamer, a touch of the poet: As much as she wants {pages} to be profitable, she also yearns for a world that can sustain a place built around the love of reading.

“This is not a … lucrative business,” she said with a carefully considered pause. “For me the measure of success is, it’s self-sustaining.”

From Fox to Prime

From left, {pages} General Manager Kristin Rasmussen, co-owner Linda McLoughlin Figel, author Colum McCann, and Co-owner Patty Gibson at an event for McCann’s book this week. Photo by J.P. Cordero

In the 1998 romantic-comedy “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan plays the owner of The Shop Around the Corner, a tiny independent bookstore in New York City that she inherited from her mother. Her character begins an online relationship with a man she meets in an AOL chatroom, whom the audience, but not Ryan, knows to be Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the scion of Fox Books, a corporate bookstore chain. Just as the duo’s electronic relationship begins to blossom, Fox announces plans to build one of its ziggurats of literature, with steep markdowns and gleaming espresso machines, around the corner from Around the Corner.

The film now feels like a relic of an era gone by. In the two decades since, the dominant threat to bookstores is no longer the Foxes of the world but Amazon. And places like {pages} survive because of, not in spite of, their small size.

Borders Group, which had a store in Plaza El Segundo, declared bankruptcy less than a year after {pages} opened. Barnes & Noble, which maintains a store at the Manhattan Gateway Shopping Center, has endured similar struggles, including reported losses for the last seven consecutive years; it was purchased by Elliot Management Corp., a hedge fund, last year. Elliot recently installed as the book chain’s CEO the founder of a group of small, quirky bookstores in the United Kingdom, prompting Bloomberg Businessweek to declare last week that “Barnes & Noble’s New Plan is to Act Like an Indie Bookseller.”

“There’s a pendulum swinging,” McLoughlin Figel said. “People said the Kindle and Amazon were going to knock out independent bookstores. Both have made operating tough. But there’s a contingent of customers who want the experience of walking into a bookstore, talking to somebody about a book, smelling a book, touching a book.”

Manhattan Beach resident Bobby McCue leads the mystery book club at {pages}. He previously served as the manager of The Mystery bookstore in Westwood Village, which closed in January 2011. He had met Ferriss at a Christmas party the month before, and volunteered to lead a book club devoted to sleuths and thrillers at the new store. Despite being fresh off the shuttering of one book store, McCue was optimistic about the future of {pages}.

“I kind of knew, even back when they closed my store, give it five years, things would probably start switching around,” he said. He points out that, at their height in the ‘90s, chains like Barnes & Noble were taking advantage of their size just like Amazon is today, negotiating deals with publishers and marking down books in their store by as much as 40 percent off the cover price. “Then all of a sudden Amazon started providing free shipping. That stifled the industry, and it was just a matter of time.” 

Amazon Prime, which for a yearly fee offers members free shipping on most orders, sometimes in as little as a day, began in the United States in 2005 and has since experienced explosive growth. Although Amazon does not disclose numbers, news reports indicate that a majority of U.S. households have been Prime members since 2016. In McCue’s analysis, once Amazon was offering both steep discounts and free shipping, less picky readers lost the motivation to go to large stores like Barnes & Noble. The brick-and-mortar book business became, essentially, a battle over a smaller but more dedicated group of customers.

“You could see that there was going to be a shift to bookstores as more of a service industry, where people are providing expertise to recommend what people might like, and what might challenge them,” he said.

Casey Poma has been working at {pages} for five years. Before that, he worked at Mysterious Galaxy, a former Redondo Beach bookstore that closed in 2014. Poma said he is drawn to working in bookstores because he enjoys being surrounded by books, and because the work provides “just the right amount of stress.” Something about {pages}, he said, has inspired him to form particularly close connections with customers.

“You get customers who have the same exact reader profile. And if you’re wondering if you’ll like a book, it’s like, ‘Trust me: I’m you, you’re going to like this book.’ That’s the fun part,” Poma said. “Because reading is so personal. It’s not like you’re recommending a dish. It’s something you’re going to spend 8 or 10 hours or more with.”

The place to be

Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, speaks at a {pages} event about his book “Barking to the Choir” at Saint Cross Episcopal Church in 2017. Boyle’s book “Tattoos on the Heart” was its bestselling book in its first full year of business. Photo

This past Sunday, the cover of the New York Times Book Review featured a surrealistic illustration of a man walking between high-rise housing towers, with a dozen inset drawings — a firing gun, a snapped baseball bat, a glassine bag of powder — scattered about like upturned tarot cards. It was attached to a favorable appraisal of “Deacon King Kong,” the latest from novelist James McBride. Junot Díaz, a Pulitzer Prize winner, called the book “cracking,” and described one of its characters as “like something out of Zora Neale Hurston updated by Paul Beatty.” McBride, who won the National Book Award in 2013, is in the midst of a national book tour that includes obligatory stops for writers of literary fiction, including Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., and Parnassus Books, the Nashville store owned by author Ann Patchett.

His concluding stop? April 1st at 904 Manhattan Ave. in Manhattan Beach, at {pages}.

The event is co-hosted with Eso Won Books, a bookstore in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles that focuses on black authors and African-American subject areas, and it underlines the emergence of {pages} as a key spoke in the cosmopolitan book world. (On Tuesday, the store hosted a lunch with Colum McCann, another past winner of the National Book Award). It’s also revealing of the shifts that have made author visits an increasingly important part of the bottom line for both book stores and the broader publishing industry. 

“In the same way people like buying a book in a bookstore, more and more, people are looking for experiences: going to see an author, those sorts of things,” McLoughlin Figel said. “When you’re a brand new bookstore you have to fight hard to get the big name authors, because its competitive to get them. I’m really pleased with the authors we’ve been able to bring.”

Alex Geffner-Millsten has worked at {pages} for two years. Next month, he’ll be organizing the the store’s booths at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, an annual weekend gathering which draws more than 100,000 people to the USC campus. Asked to pick a favorite author appearance, he thought for a while, then settled on Georgia Hunter discussing “We Were the Lucky Ones,” her novel about a Jewish family separated at the beginning of World War II and their struggle to reunite. The novel is based on Hunter’s own experiences — according to publisher Penguin Random House, she was 15 when she discovered that she came from a family of Holocaust survivors — and Geffner-Millsten recalled that Hunter’s talk centered around the extensive research she did, including visiting university archives and tracking down people in Eastern Europe.

“That’s the nice thing about hearing writers talk.You’re listening to someone who has done an exceptional amount of reading, writing and thinking about a subject. When I listen, I’m learning something I wouldn’t have otherwise learned, sort of like Cliff Notes. The ones who are really interesting, I’ll read. And I wouldn’t have found them but for the talk,” he said.

The store has also become a showcase for locally grown talent. Daniel Riley, a Mira Costa graduate, appeared at the store in 2017 to discuss his novel “Fly Me,” set in a fictionalized Manhattan in the early ‘70s. Charles Yu, who grew up in Palos Verdes, recently visited to discuss “Interior Chinatown,” which now sits among the Top 10 on national fiction bestseller lists. And Michael Moore, of Manhattan Beach, stopped by to share the story of being kidnapped by Somali Pirates that he recounted in his book “The Desert and the Sea.”

Manhattan Beach resident Pamela Salzman is the author of “Kitchen Matters,” a cookbook devoted to recipes wholesome and delicious, and was the bestselling book at {pages} in 2017. After years of teaching cooking classes in the South Bay and Los Angeles, she compiled her work into a book. Her devoted following and a list of celebrity endorsements helped her find a major publisher, and she went on a national tour. But the event at {pages} was “really special.”

“The house was packed the night we did my event there. It was standing room only,” Salzman recalled. “I was moved to tears after Linda introduced me. It’s actually making me emotional just talking about it, that so many people I had taught were there.”

Salzman recently completed another book, called “Quicker than Quick,” devoted to recipes that share the sensibilities of “Kitchen Matters” but are faster to assemble. She’ll be headed to the East Coast to start the tour, but will be back at {pages} for an event the evening of April 30th.

The literary world remains centered around the other Manhattan, though Salzman notes that editors there are “obsessed” with people from Southern California. {pages}, as its reputation rises amid a diminishing number of independent bookstores in the region, is a strategic choice for publishers, who have been pushed to their financial edges by Amazon just like bookstores.

It’s also, Salzman said, a place “that is really in synch with the energy, the mentality, the pulse of their community.”

“{pages} just isn’t like a regular bookstore. They are really connected with authors. They are trying to support authors. And they have a way of bringing a community together around reading.”

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